Clarice Starling: Feminist Film Icon

Sarah Marshall explores our continued fascination with one of the strongest female protagonists in the popular imagination
Jodie Foster as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
“People will say we’re in love,” Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. The movie that made these characters into American icons turned 25 years old this February. More specifically, it celebrated its birthday on Valentine’s Day, the almost unbelievably ballsy release date director Jonathan Demme chose for his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel. Maybe it’s because of this particularly suggestive anniversary date that people really have spent the last 25 years saying exactly what Hannibal Lecter once predicted. In any case, it’s a shame that Hannibal and Clarice’s story has become—with Thomas Harris’ 1999 novel Hannibal and Ridley Scott’s 2001 film adaptation—something of a Byronic romance. In Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, we find two characters searching for something far more elusive than limerence and luxury: mutual respect.

To say that their story still maintains its unique power 25 years later would only be stretching the truth in one respect. “Their” story has always been Clarice’s story alone. As Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins has 16 minutes of screen time, making his performance the shortest ever to garner a Best Actor Academy Award. As Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster appears in almost every scene. She won her own Academy Award for the role, and in her acceptance speech—which she delivered in pale pink suit that made her red AIDS ribbon all the more visible to viewers at home—Foster dedicated her Oscar “to all of the women who came before me who never had the chances that I’ve had, [to] the survivors and the pioneers and the outcasts… my blood, my tradition.”


Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling

“The thing I really love about Clarice Starling,” Foster said, a few months after the film’s release, “Is that this may be one of the first times that I have seen a female hero that is not a female-steroid version of Arnold Schwarzenegger… Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, [her] intuition, her frailty and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.”

From the first frame, The Silence of the Lambs toyed with viewers’ expectations that this kind of movie only had room for two versions of female protagonists: ones who were masculine and competent and ones who were feminine and soon-to-be dead. We open on Clarice as she runs through the FBI Academy’s obstacle course. We see her pain, her struggle, and her sweat. We hear her panting so clearly that her breath eclipses our own. She darts through the forest, ducking under branches and pushing herself beyond exhaustion. In any other movie of this era—in any one of the hundreds of slasher movies that populated the previous decade, and turned the genre’s tropes into a kind of catechism—Clarice would be running away from someone. Instead, she is running toward something: toward her goals, toward her dreams, and toward the life she will save.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

After The Silence of the Lambs was released to both commercial success and near-unanimous critical acclaim, people developed a habit of describing it as anything other than “horror,” classifying it instead as a thriller, a police procedural, or even an action movie. The Silence of the Lambs does put pressure on the horror genre’s boundaries, but more than anything, it challenges people’s perceptions of the genre by being undeniably good.

The Silence of the Lambs is not just a horror movie but a study of horror. The story, its characters, and even its close-ups and camera angles are all permeated with fear. Clarice is afraid that she will not be able to locate the serial killer known to the public as Buffalo Bill in time to save his latest abductee, Catherine Martin. Catherine is afraid for her life. Buffalo Bill, who abducts women so he can use their skins to sew what Clarice calls “a woman suit,” is afraid of having to go on living without taking refuge in a new self. And Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer whose cell Clarice visits so she can gather his insights on Buffalo Bill, is afraid, too. He is afraid that Clarice’s goodness might actually be real: something he cannot break down into greed or vanity or revenge disguised as altruism; something he cannot understand.

Ultimately, this is exactly what happens. In the characters’ final scene together, Hannibal tries and fails to reduce Clarice’s heroism to a set of influences and traumas. He is forced to reckon with the fact that she is, simply, good. Hannibal and Clarice’s only moment of contact—in which Clarice disobeys her mentor’s strict orders and lets Hannibal hand a file to her through the bars of his cell, in the process giving him to the chance to touch her—is depicted in a shot reminiscent of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. We get the sense, though, that Hannibal is not imputing some godly power to a weak human, but is hoping to experience the power that belongs to Clarice. [Read More]

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